In these circumstances, the word “unite” — a word on which Joe Biden ran for president and a vision in which many of us believe — has itself drawn contempt. Uniters are seen as wishy-washy and spineless.
Nothing could be further from the truth. No one I know who hopes to wear the label of “uniter” is suggesting that those responsible for sedition and violence should not be held accountable. Shallow calls to unite from Republicans responsible for one of the most divisive days in U.S. history won’t work either.
Here’s what makes a uniter approach distinctive — and why uniting the country remains the essential and urgent challenge of now: When facing polarizing forces, uniters make the high-risk step of crossing divides. Think of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Think of Nelson Mandela inviting his former jailer to dinner. Think of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. In each of these instances, enormous division and injustice were transformed by avoiding contempt. When facing factions and hostile interests, uniters search for creative solutions that create common purpose grounded in transcendent principles such as truth, goodness, justice and peace.
For uniters, the enemy is often a condition in the human heart. Mandela was a uniter who spent his entire life opposing racism that he saw deep in the hearts of his oppressors. Mahatma Gandhi opposed colonialism, but he did so with a vision of a free and nonviolent Indian democracy without demonizing the British. Mother Teresa opposed the caste system but rarely scapegoated Indians. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but sought a country with “malice toward none.”
I can tolerate a lot of debate about the qualities of a uniter, but being told that trying to unite our country is a coward’s path is too much. On the contrary, being a uniter is the more difficult path because uniters risk the hatred of all those — on the left and the right — who have become convinced that hatred and destruction of the other side are the only paths forward. Lincoln offered malice toward none and was murdered a month later. King offered a world where love defeats hate and gave his life for it. My uncle Robert F. Kennedy said that what our country needed in 1968 was love, and eight weeks later, he was gone. Too frequently, uniters pay with their lives, because when hatred and contempt rage out of control, the one who calls us to the self-sacrificing work of uniting is often the victim.
Biden ran to be a uniter. People may oppose him, but at least they ought to understand the enormity of what he is trying to do. Does he have to respect the vote from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to overturn the election? No. Should he invite McCarthy to join him in rushing resources to schools and children in crisis around the country? You bet. Should he invite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to dinner at the White House? Not until Cruz faces the truth of his actions and offers to change. But can Biden treat him with dignity and ask him to join in generating new solutions to the challenge of immigration that affects so many Texans? Let’s hope so. And instead of exhausting his political capital to drive a stake through the heart of Trump, should Biden use that same energy to convince Trump’s 74 million voters that there is an American future in which they belong and to which they can contribute, full of the faith, freedom and justice that they espouse? For sure.
Will he win them over? Time will tell. But that’s the best outcome — not defeating “them” but finding ways to create a new “us.”
Dividing is easy. It costs little. The blame and the solution are all in others. It’s a recipe for feeling good about one’s group, going to battle against others and trying to win. Division isn’t just a problem for some; it’s also the solution.
I want to unite not because it’s the nice thing to do but because it’s the only way to solve our problems. I want justice. I want no part of racism and lying and sedition. And I’m choosing love to oppose them all. You can accuse people like me of many things, but please don’t suggest we’re choosing the easy road. Uniting people without compromise and without contempt is the hardest road of all. And the only one that will heal our country today.